How promising was the period of Reconstruction for African Americans?
There are varying historic interpretations of the period of Reconstruction and whether it proved promising for African Americans. Some historians such as William A. Dunning suggest that the southerners were the victims of Reconstruction and a growing population of African Americans formulated ‘Negro Rule’ whereas others contradict this with the Post-Revisionists claiming that the period was ‘non-revolutionary’ and conservative in terms of black independence.
It can be argued that Reconstruction was promising as under the 14th Amendment it was stated that all persons born or naturalised in the USA should be regarded as citizens and be guaranteed equality before the law. This was highly significant and promising for African Americans as it meant that they would have the same rights as white Americans which were protected equally by the law. This Amendment also reversed many of the Black Codes that had been enforced. This act was interpreted as a great success and a positive accomplishment by Revisionist historians as it was considered that blacks were now of equal citizenship. Furthermore, 700,000 African Americans registered to vote suggesting gains in the independence of black people and growth in influence due to voting opportunities. Some African Americans were even elected to local and state offices and two blacks achieved the positions of US Senators. Some historians regard this as ‘Negro Rule’ where African Americans were becoming too powerful with a population size to nearly equal the whites. However, Revisionist historians of the late 1950s-70s regard this as a ‘myth’ as white southerners were still in the majority in state legislatures and government offices. The formulation of the concept of ‘Negro Rule’ was likely to have come from Southerners in attempt to portray themselves as victims of Reconstruction.
In addition to this, African Americans grew in independence during the Reconstruction period with the freedom to own property meaning that they could earn money for themselves. The Freedmen’s Bureau was also set up by an Act of Congress in March 1865 which was a government body empowered to support the freed slaves. The body was successful in helping African American’s find homes and employment so they were able to earn their own money and to give back to the government. Between 1865 and 1866 the Bureau spent $17 million setting up 4000 schools and 100 hospitals. Furthermore the body allocated any abandoned or confiscated land to African Americans. These acts created economic benefits for black people through work opportunities and suggested a brighter future for the next generation of African Americans.
In terms of social impact, Reconstruction improved access for African American’s to education. This is supported by the Revisionist interpretation that Reconstruction brought the establishment of public school systems throughout the South. Historian W E. B. DuBois claims that money expended by the Southern governments did not go to the politicians but instead went to areas such as education and other public services that had never been funded on such a large scale before. This view suggests that Southern officials were intent on improving life for African Americans. A growth in Black churches provided a strong unifying factor for African Americans and often the minister in the church played a key role, becoming a spokesperson for the community providing the African Americans with a voice. This idea is supported by historian Leon Litwack, who claims that during Reconstruction, former slaves used their new found freedom to develop a certain independence for themselves within the Southern society, ‘Reconstruction gave blacks a certain amount of legal and political power in the South’.
However, it can be considered that the period of Reconstruction was not promising for African Americans. Republican, Rutherford B. Hayes...
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